Halcyon House is an island of serenity of the bustling madness that is Georgetown. Even in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, the neighborhood is packed with people, school children, college kids, joggers, neighbors going about their business. In the center of it all is a four story private residence turned startup incubator taking applications for it’s 7th cohort. And while many of the folks in the house are focused on solving international problems in a pragmatic, scalable way, the House also has a wildy creative side. The newly launched Halcyon Stage is kicking off this spring with 20 events of various sizes. From rave-esque parties at Union Market’s Dock 5 to intimate conversations with local legend John Waters, Halcyon Stage is all about presenting familiar concepts in strange new ways.
The crown jewel of their first event series are three events that are taking place at Dock 5, a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Experiential Orchestra, a ballet set to Amy Winehouse’s music with the company BalletX, and a operatic retelling of Poe’s Fall ff the House of Usher with Wolf Trap Opera. The man behind these creative endeavors is Septime Webre. Former artistic director of the Washington Ballet, Webre has has taken on the role of Halcyon Stage’s artistic director and is utilizing his many years in classical theater to create experiences D.C. has never seen before. We caught up with him at the House to talk about the upcoming events and how he got his start in the industry.
Brightest Young Things: Can you tell me about how you got started in ballet?
Septime Webre: I’m the seventh son in a family of nine kids, eight sons and one sister, and it was a family that expected us to go to law school, be an engineer or a doctor. I told everyone that I was going to be a lawyer, but I was stage struck early. When I was 10 I was the family playwright. And my first play was called The Case of The Recurring Ennui and it was a play I wrote for my sister, who was eight. The first line was, “Oh, I’ve never been so ennui in all my life.” Eventually, I followed my sister to ballet school. She sucked…but I was good at it. So very quietly, while I told everyone that I was going to go to law school, in fact I was training in classical ballet. During undergrad, I have an undergraduate degree in history pre-law from the University of Texas Austin, I was training 25-30 hours a week. After undergrad, I had been planning to go to law school but then got a job dancing in a ballet company in Austin. After the fifth day in rehearsal, I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to go to law school.” I was going to move to New York at the end of my contract and see what happens. I moved to New York a year later, I was about 23, on my third day there I got a job as a professional ballet dancer. It just happened.
Very early on I was choreographing. Even though I was focused on dancing and working really hard, my real interest was choreographing and directing. By age 30 I retired and became a director for a company in Princeton and then the Washington Ballet.
BYT: How did you get involved with Halcyon?
SW: I had spent 17 years of my life at the Washington Ballet and I felt really proud of its development during my time there. The annual budget went from 2.8 million to 12 million. The company developed so much, but I thought it was time for a new chapter. The work was so intense at the ballet and I had been doing it full tilt for 17 years and at the same time my choreographic career outside of Washington, my international choreographing career had really taken off for the last five years or so. I wanted to step away and just focus on being an artist for a few years and not really be at an institution for a few years. That was my plan.
After I announced my departure, I had this long, 10-12 year relationship with the S&R foundation, they had been supporting my work very generously. The founders of S&R foundation, who launched Halcyon, approached me about helping them launch this new series of public programs. It seemed really interesting. I can maintain my choreographic work, but as an artistic director I’ve also been a curator of other people’s work first and foremost and secondly a choreographer. So this part feels comfortable for me. It’s comfortable in that I’m comfortable producing and curating experiences for audiences, but it’s new for me in that it’s not dance specific. So I felt a little like a kid in a candy shop with so many options. If you look at the list of things we’re doing, it’s just cool stuff. I wanted to put together a series that is like how we live life. With lots of different kinds of experiences. Food is as important to us as culture is as important to us as to music as is important to us as books. Collectively, we make a statement about the nature of creativity in the 21st century. On a one off basis, everything would just be a cool new thing to do.
BYT: Diving into the upcoming series you guys are doing at Dock 5 (starting with Rite of Spring), obviously the theme is classics with a modern twist, how did you decide who you wanted to work with and what you wanted to do?
SW: The vision developed organically. I knew that we wanted to present some serious classical work, but I didn’t want to replicate what was already being presented in the Kennedy Center and other venues in town. I didn’t want to compete with my colleagues, but develop it at a new space in a new way. I was really aware of some cool performing threads that were happening in Brooklyn, particularly in Bushwick. I had gone to a few classical things, like opera in Bushwick in a warehouse. It sort of sparked the imagination that when we were presenting classically oriented work, we’d do it in an unorthodox way. Simultaneously, we’d developed a partnership with EDENS, the people who developed Union Market and are developing that whole area of town. I went to brunch with the team there one day and we just began to brainstorm. Dock 5 is like a blank slate. It’s this really cool warehouse space and enlivening it with classical work, but classical work that you would experience the way you would experience some kind of warehouse rave seemed like a cool way to express the work and seemed like a good way of keeping with the fresh energy that the whole environment has. The whole neighborhood just feels new and revived.
BYT: Do you think this is the beginning of a trend? I love opera and I’ve seen some at the Kennedy Center but with programs like Opera on Tap, do you think this is the beginning of a revival of classical, old school performances?
SW: I think things are classics for a reason. They are perennial. They are forever. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and that experience of being right there with 78 classical musicians playing this revolutionary score for 1913, that will never go out of style. But presenting it in a way that seems related to how culture is consumed now, how we live our lives now… Seeing that work at the concert hall at the Kennedy Center is an exciting thing, but it does seem a little old fashioned compared to this experience. What we’re trying to do is experience this classic work in a new way, but the experience, just like you would experience something on a tablet or phone, seems vital to today’s world. Sitting at an opera house for many hours is an amazing experience and I’ve spent probably thousands of hours that way, probably tens of thousands of hours, but if we wanted those forms to survive, having them exist in a contemporary context seems important.
BYT: Tell me about how the evening is going to go.
SW: Doors open at 8 p.m. and at 8:30 p.m. and it’s basically an electronica DJ and 78 classical musicians having a dialogue with each other. The centerpiece is Stravinsky’s amazing score that revolutionized and music and signified the birth of modern classical music. There was literally a riot in the theatre in Paris in 1913 when it premiered and the curtain had to be pulled down after 13 minutes. They were only able to play 13 minutes of the 40 minutes score because there was such a riot in the theater because no one had ever heard something so evolutionary. So it was a piece of music born of revolution. We have other music being performed, we have commissioned a short dance work that will be performed to a violin piece by Johann Sebastian Bach and a short driving percussion piece. So these classical works will be intermixed with DJ sets so the audience will be able to experience this score, not the way you would experience it in a theater or a concert hall, seated, but actually being able to dance and move to it. The concept of the Experiential Orchestra and their name is about experiencing classical music in some visceral way and not just in a passive listening way.
It’s going to be fun. And it all ends with a rollicking dance party afterwards.
BYT: You’re teaming up with Experiential Orchestra, BalletX and Wolf Trap Opera to pull this series off. How did you choose those companies?
SW: I wanted to make a statement going forward that we were going to present the best of important genres, but in a new way. So having one orchestral project, one dance project and one opera project seemed to make a holistic statement about who we are. We are classicists, on a certain level, who are also all about creativity and innovation. So we’re doing a lot of new stuff, but it’s stuff that always comes out of the classical canon and it will always be presented in this fresh new way. Also, I really have sought to make every experience interdisciplinary.
BYT: Are you working on any other classical combinations? Like screening a classic film with a twist or a classic recipe, etc.
SW: Yes! We envision other classical forms like film, like theater, food, and yoga. We had Claus Meyer here last night, not making food, just talking.
BYT: What has an average day been like for you while you prepare for this series?
SW: It has been… That’s a really good question. Because we’re still filled with self invention. Because we’re still inventing ourselves, good portions of everyday have to do with me talking to other artists and exploring with artists different things we might be able to do here. That’s been fun. Developing relationships with folks in town that need to be engaged with us. So, for example, one of the things we’re doing is Halcyon Stage House Party. That is a two part program, the culminating event is a hip-hop festival on the theme “visions of the future” but we’re also launching a workshop series for D.C. high school students who will be empowered by telling their stories through hip-hop. One group of kids will have an eight week workshop to write their own songs, perform, record, and create a mix tape. At the same time another group of kids will be choreographing a dance to the single, based on the theme. And then a third group of kids will do five original works of street art on the theme. So we’re piloting it with KIPP College Preparatory, it’s charter school near Union Market. It begins next week, and we expect to replicate that in other locations next year. So it will be a community engagement event seeking to empower our D.C. youth through giving them an avenue to express themselves and tell stories while gaining skills in the music industry where some of them might have some professional potential. So building relationships with schools, I’ve been working to make sure the City Council knows what we’re up to, you know, advocating.
BYT: The third part of the series, the Fall of The House of Usher is your baby in more ways than one. Not only are you working on every part of this series, but this one is your personal project. How are you balancing working on the creative aspects and the event planning aspects? What is that creative process like?
SW: It’s exciting, there are many layers to it. The challenges of producing an opera in a warehouse is a technical challenge, but we’re working on those. I’m partnering with Brandon Morse, a video artist who was with Connor Smith when that was still a thing. He’s D.C.’s most celebrated video artists and digital media artist, he’s also a professor at Maryland. He’s doing a big video installation and we’re working together on that concept. Taking this gothic tale this spine chilling tale and abstracting it. So he takes these images of blood cells disintegrating and stuff. Tomorrow I’ll have our audition for CityDancers, who will be the dancers in it. So it’ll be 10 classical musicians playing Philip Glass’s mesmerizing score, three singers from Wolf Trap Opera and then eight dancers. So it will be integrated, it will be a multi media piece. It’s exciting for me because I’ve working most of my life in ballet, but I have worked in the area of opera and theater and when I do, I find it really exciting. I’ll start rehearsing with dancers in about two weeks and because Wolf Trap Opera operates in the late spring and summer, I’ll choreograph everything in March and April and add the singers in at the end of May three or four weeks leading up to the production itself. I’m producing, but I’m also directing and choreographing. It’s fun. I’m used to that actually.
BYT: How does that creative process work for you? Do you plan everything out in your head before rehearsals or is it more of a thinking on the fly situation?
SW: I’m very inspired by Philip Glass’s music and Philip Glass has been a really important person in the dance world. Because his music has been so open and provides a kind of propulsive rhythm that’s great to dance to and doesn’t layer on too much to the dance, because of its minimal nature. So it really feels dance-y which is why… we’ll the dance came after the fact I was just going to create and opera and then it seemed right to add dance to it. When I first started out as a choreographer and a director, I had so much prepared before going into the first rehearsal, but over the 20 years of making work, I taught myself to go into the studio less and less prepared. I will know the score backwards and forwards, I will have it completely memorized. I will be able to hum… badly… every measure, but I will not have a single step prepared. I’ll have structure laid out. I’m a structure person, I’m a form person. I’m more of a formalist than an expressionist. I’m very structured. I have hundreds of composition books that all have the whole score analyzed. Then, in the studio, I will create the work on the dancers and then when the singers come I will direct them in a way that is more viscerally responsive to the real emotional information that they’re presenting in front of me at that moment.
BYT: What are you most excited about in this series?
SW: I’m actually excited about the three Dock 5 events, mostly. Because they make a strong statement about how classical work can be so vitally part of today. And that’s what I endeavoured to do at the Washington Ballet all those years, is have the Washington Ballet be socially integrated into the city and be a ballet but be of the moment. Not a museum ballet company. It’s fun. Like I said earlier, I feel like a kid in a candy store. There are just so many different ways to express creativity, but my central conviction, that these forms can be vital to audiences and today’s citizens, is exciting to me.
BYT: What will have to happen for you to feel like you’ve been successful?
SW: I think two things have to happen. One, I think is, over time over the course of the next couple years, as we grow, it will be successful if the city starts to know that we are the go to place for creative experiences and to consume culture in a really hip new way and an unorthodox way. Secondly, to have people in the moment of the events consume the culture with gusto and freedom and glee. That they’re rediscovering these forms for the first time again. That there’s a connection between the artists and the audience that feels like there’s a real communication and that we’re all having an amazing time together because the experience is both so resonant and deep, but also so fun. So much damn fun. The short term would be have these events knock it out of the ballpark, be really fun and then long term is that we grow to be this integral part of the creative landscape.
BYT: What’s the hardest part of your job?
SW: Building something from nothing… essentially nothing. We just had an idea and the idea was fostering a dialogue about creativity. Figuring out, limiting the options and deciding how to edit out all of the good ideas. My first ideas, my first brainstorming list… I was on a nine hour flight to Hawaii and I just said, “I’m going to write for nine hours.” I just started a word document with bullet points of ideas and there were hundreds of items on the list. To whittle it down to the 20 we’re doing this spring, that’s a challenge.
BYT: What’s your dream project? Considering an unlimited budget and time.
SW: It’s a large scale site specific work with world class artists of different genres who are enlivening an entire neighborhood on a sunny spring afternoon in D.C. Where a community can be built uniting food, music, dance… It’s like one of our pop ups writ large that we’ve deconstructed the experience. We’ve taken the experience out of the theatre, out of a museum, and put it into a neighborhood. And there are world class artists who are performing behind every corner, in an alleyway, over a period of time. One can find this sense of surprise in their own neighborhood.
BYT: What do you think is going to be the best part of the evening?
SW: I actually think seeing everyone dance to the raucous moment when the virgin is sacrificed in the music. The place where the libretto calls for the sacrifice of the virgin. We won’t actually sacrifice a virgin that night… Are there any left?! But that moment, when the music comes to a climax and the crowd is really understanding the music in a physical way and the bodies are physically responding to it collectively… I think that is going to be the most exciting.